Santiago Casal has been dreaming of a sun calendar memorial for over 20 years, and he’s willing to wait as long as it takes to bring the project to fruition.
“I’m going to work on this forever ’til the day I die. This is my contribution,” he said on his way to the site of the proposed project to celebrate the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.
“I’m a person of the ’60s so all the instincts of rebellion, that political awareness of our roots, it came a lot from that,” he said.
The sun calendar, planned for a hilltop in Cesar Chavez Park, would be a memorial to Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers.
Various Berkeley sites are named after Chavez, including both the park and the UC Berkeley student resource center.
Casal said he hopes his project will be on a larger scale. He wants to draw visitors from all over the United States and Mexico.
While visiting Tikal, Guatemala, Casal saw a sun calendar that suddenly seemed the perfect memorial, recognizing ancient cultures and paying tribute to the ancient agricultural systems. “These places dramatize something that’s basic to being human.”
Thursday’s was the tenth solstice that Casal has
celebrated on the same hill in the park, overlooking the San Francisco Bay. The site is a no-longer-used landfill, with methane gas pipes running underneath it. That limits the kind of architecture that can be used. Planners must be wary of shaking the ground. But each changing season has made the project firmer. The group supporting the memorial has presented the project to the Waterfront Commission, the City Council and the School Board.
Although the city has set aside the land for the calendar, Casal hesitated to call the sun calendar memorial a certainty.
“I think the city is behind it,” said Casal. “But it’s not certain until you start construction. That’s just the nature of Berkeley.”
In between pounding posts into the ground to mark the direction of the setting sun, Casal explained the blueprints of the memorial. The structure would start with two berms – mounds of earth made into flat shelves – that would encircle a 90-square-foot area.
A few notches will be carved into the tops of the earthen walls, like those in the walls of a medieval castle. But these notches will be specifically placed to frame the setting sun of the solstice, to “try to bring more drama to it,” said Casal.
Chinese gardens are an example of how structures can be used to frame pieces of landscape and “views.” How the sunset will be framed on the sun calendar project is, said Casal, “subject to art.”
The advisory board that will help to define the sun calendar project consists of architects, artists, educators and astronomers, as well as people from the Cesar Chavez foundation. So far donations have been small, but the group is looking to local businesses and foundations to provide some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars the project will cost.
The initial estimate is $500,000, but Casal said that may only pay for the skeleton of the project. Once some of the money is raised the advisory board will solicit artistic proposals. The complexity of the proposals will determine how much the project costs.
Casal envisions bright colors. Another visionary wants to use light reflection to illuminate particular portions of the memorial on different days of the year, like Chavez’s birthday. The four cardinal points will represent four of the virtues Chavez is famous for, including courage and forgiveness.
Alan Gould, director of the planetarium at the Lawrence Hall of Science, is a member of the board who waved good-bye to the winter sun Thursday in Cesar Chavez park. “Culturally, people have noticed through the ages that times get harder and harder as winter moves on and easier as spring comes,” he said. “People noticed a correlation between how the sun behaves and the bad and good times.” Cultural traditions grew up surrounding the movement of the sun, he said.
Vida Bateau and her family, the only participants at the solstice event not affiliated with the project, came as part of that continuing tradition.
“We do celebrate the solstice every year to welcome back the sun. I feel connected to it because it’s the oldest holiday.” She came to the solstice to greet the days of longer light. “It’s been very dark,” she said.